Before moving away from her Southern California home to become a student at the Community College of Denver, Brittany Ross was nervous. She had tried college once before, but her Asperger's syndrome made it difficult for her to connect with her peers and stay focused on her schoolwork. Her grades were "all over the place," Ross says, because she had test anxiety, trouble writing essays, and panic attacks that grew worse with each social and academic misstep.
The difference between Ross's first college experience and her time in Denver is the support she receives from College Living Experience, a private program operating in six cities around the country that helps students with learning disabilities thrive in a college setting. Students enroll concurrently in CLE and a college near one of the program's centers and work with CLE staff not just on their coursework but also on their social skills, their emotional maturity, and their ability to live independently. Though CLE will serve students with any type of learning disability, it is one of only a few programs nationwide that specialize in helping students with autism spectrum disorders and Asperger's syndrome gain access to college.
In the early 1990s, the definition of autism expanded to include a range of milder conditions, and the swaths of children diagnosed then are starting to consider higher education now. While colleges and universities are required by law to offer students with learning disabilities extra time on tests, note-taking services, and other accommodations, the schools are not required to provide support as comprehensive as what some students require. This gap in available support led to CLE. Although its cost is $33,500 per student per year—a sum that only some states will partially subsidize—it's an option that opens doors for some learning-disabled students and their parents.
Stephanie Martin, director of CLE, says the program currently has 187 students enrolled, many of whom pay in full (in some cases, a federal tax deduction is possible) and consider the opportunity to work toward a college degree at a vocational, two-year, or four-year school an investment in their future. The program opened its first center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 2005, recently opened its sixth in Rockville, Md., and plans to continue expanding as demand grows, Martin says. Like Ross, about 30 percent of CLE's students tried college at least once before enrolling in the program. Preliminary results of an ongoing federal Department of Education study show that fewer than half of students with learning disabilities have received postsecondary education and that the proportion of students who complete their degrees is even smaller.
The transition between high school and college is huge for students with severe learning disabilities like autism, says Tom Welch, the clinical psychologist for CLE's Denver program. In high school, the goal for these students was merely to pass a class, complete a grade level, or graduate, Welch says. At the college level, students start to envision what is possible for them as independent adults. "Our understanding of what's possible for us in this world is as narrow as our experiences," Welch says. "To make a friend or lose a friend, to meet someone researching something you never knew about or to meet a friend training for a career you never knew was possible for you—it opens up a whole new world for these students."
Welch's job at CLE Denver is to support each of the location's 50 participants in their emotional and psychological development. Some students, he says, can be up to six years behind their age developmentally and need support to complete a semester without failing classes. Because many autistic students struggle with executive functioning--the ability to understand time, maintain a schedule, or plan ahead--the preparation required to take a final exam can seem overwhelming, Welch says. It is common for students who have worked hard all semester to allow their anxiety to sabotage their effort and suddenly stop attending classes. Programs like CLE, Welch says, can help students recognize and address the problem before mounting absences and missed assignments mean flunking out.
As social coordinator and resident adviser for CLE's Denver program, Kirk Redwine helps students overcome slightly different problems. CLE students live with one another in apartment buildings near their college rather than living on campus. While performing rounds of the CLE students' rooms like a resident adviser from any other college, it is not uncommon for Redwine to remind students to shower, wash their crusty dishes, or clean the dirty laundry spread across their floors. If not for Redwine's reminders, these tasks might never get done, he says. Such responsibilities are just one piece of what students with autism and other learning disabilities need to learn to succeed. "Comprehensive support is so crucial," Redwine says. "To think someone with so many issues could do college without this type of multifaceted assistance is setting them up to fail."
Michelle Gross, academic liaison for CLE's Denver program, also sees the ability to organize an apartment or make friends as small successes that should come before—or at least in conjunction with—academic achievement. "If you're academically successful but you have no friends, then what's the point?" Gross says. She works hard to provide and coordinate academic support services tailored to each CLE student. If a student is anxious about attending a certain class, Gross frequently walks the student to the classroom door to ensure he or she arrives on time. Instead of providing students with one tutor for all their subjects, Gross works hard to hire tutors who specialize in students' coursework. For example, if a student is taking an accounting class, CLE will hire an upper-level accounting student to tutor. If a student is taking a culinary arts class, that student gets a chef as his or her tutor. CLE provides a different tutor two hours per week for each of a student's classes. Most important, Gross teaches students to be self advocates—to know how to explain their disabilities and to know what accommodations they need.
Though Brittany Ross has not graduated from the Community College of Denver, she is already putting the skills she learned through CLE to the test. In January, Ross left Denver to intern for one semester in Disneyworld through the Disney College Program. She says the achievement would not have been possible without her participation in a program like CLE. Each day Ross works as a restaurant hostess, she must use her social interaction skills, since the job is heavily dependent on customer interaction. Without CLE's tutoring, Ross's grades might have compromised her application to the program, and without CLE's emotional support, leaving Denver would have seemed too great a risk, she says.
Ross "loves" her Disney job, but she also misses the friends she has made through CLE. That in itself is a kind of accomplishment: Before she enrolled in the program, she struggled to form friendships with peers. "When I was younger I had a few friends, but I was never very popular and didn't really feel I belonged," Ross says. "Now, I have 50 students who have become my brothers and sisters and best friends, and I finally don't feel like I'm the one left out of the group."
Corrected on 02/26/09: An earlier version of this article misspelled clinical psychologist Tom Welch's name.